Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Campaign Distictions

I've been kicking this post around for a while, but it seemed like a good time to go ahead and publish it.

One of the real frustrations that I have experienced when running RPG's is when the players, for whatever reason, create Player Characters that just don't fit.  Maybe it is ego.  Maybe it is a belief that discordant PC's are better PC's, or will have more advantages, or more of a story.   Maybe they just thought it was a good fit, even it is wasn't.

As an example, when I first ran Vampire: the Masquerade lo those many moons ago, I was planning on doing a pretty typical V:tM campaign with internecine plots and Machiavellian politics.  I had two problems.  The first was the player who wanted to play a werewolf (this was before there even was a werewolf RPG from White Wolf).  The second was a player who wanted to play Batman.  Seriously, his PC's concepts would be that he would wear a mask, fight crime, and drink the blood of criminals and blood banks.  It was like Red Rain.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't work.  The werewolf PC was excluded from most of the action because it took place in vampire enclaves.  The superhero PC ran into trouble when he unwisely chose to break into a police station and steal a bunch of crime-fighting gear (turns out Obfuscation 1 doesn't work on security systems).

It was a mess.  But what can a GM do to avoid it without being too heavy-handed about PC creation?  To avoid this, I'm experimenting in my proto-campaign for Prowlers & Paragons with something I invented from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, namely the idea of Campaign Distinctions.

In MHR, Distinctions are like FATE's Aspects which can describe a PC (e.g. Captain America has "Sentinel of Liberty" and "Man from another time").  Distinctions can also describe locations (a SHIELD base might have "high tech security" or "Hydra double agents") which can be invoked to the player's benefit.

Over at the Plot Points blog I saw a contributor float the idea of having superhero teams have their own XP triggers, which means the players get XP when the PC's act in a stereotypical manner of that particular superhero team.  For example, when the X-Men face prejudice, or when the Avengers disband and reform, the PC's get an XP bonus, because they are emulating the genre.  ICONS had a similar idea, but applied their own Distinction/Aspect mechanic to superhero teams instead.  For example, the Teen Titans might have the Distinctions "Sidekicks with something to prove," "Adolescent Drama," and "Please for the love of God keep Cartoon Network away from us."

So as I was thinking about kicking off a superhero campaign, and all the ways discordant PC creation could make a hash of it, I thought, why not create campaign Distinctions as a way of illustrating to the players what they should expect?  So for my own campaign, I came up with the following:

High Cape-and-Spandex Quotient.  Translation: keep your giant shoulder pads, gritty action, and crypto-fascism at home.  This campaign features heroes with colorful costumes, secret identities, and villains with a tendency to monologue a lot.

Reactive Heroes and Proactive Investigators. Translation: while a lot of stories will feature the plot mechanic of the heroes getting word of some problem and rushing to the scene, the players will also be expected to do some bird-dogging when it comes to figuring out what is going in the campaign.

Everything can be explained with Pseudo-Science (for now).  Translation: when it comes to the "how" of superheroes and villains, I'm curtailing the origin options to those which are grounded in sketchy science, rather than introducing magic and other far-out concepts just yet.  Partially this is to keep the "cosmology" of the campaign contained to the point of being manageable, and to make it easier for me to massage the PC group into a whole.

I could see this being used to help give players a quick overview in other kinds of campaigns.  A Star Wars campaign using Edge of Empire or Traveller mechanics (*wink, nudge*) could have "Rogues and Scoundrels," "Aliens Everywhere," and "The Darkness Between the Stars."  A megadungeon D&D campaign with gonzo monsters and resource management could have "Descent into the Depths," "Not your Father's orcs," and "Keep track of the torches."  You get the idea.

Thoughts and comments welcome!


  1. I hope that nudge, and wink weren't aimed in my direction good sir. *Stares at his friend with narrowed, piercing blue-gray eyes*

    For if they were, you've missed the point of what I'm trying to do...while at the same time painting a perfect picture of what you are talking about here! Egad! A brilliant ploy to prove your point.

    Very clever indeed.

    I'll explain what I mean in a moment, but first I'd like to address the subject of the post, namely Campaign Distinctions.

    I think the idea of Campaign Distinctions is a great one, and should ('should' mind you) alleviate much of the confusion, and miscommunication that results in some of the crazy character choices players often make.


    If I am running a game based on a movie, or TV show, I'd have to watch that show and then try to figure out, 'How do I explain this using Distinctions? What Distinctions best represent what I saw.'

    OK, that's logical. But if the players saw the same show WHY IS THIS NECESSARY?!? If the players paid attention to the thing they saw, which is the thing you saw, how is it hard to figure out what's appropriate?

    The other obstacle I run into is that no matter what game, setting, or genre a GM wants to run, there are a number of players who play the game in their heads.

    I have seen guys who always make up goofy, comic relief type characters whether the group is playing Toon, AD&D, or an angst ridden, politics driven game of Vampire: The Masquerade.

    I've seen guys who create detailed backstories for their character, and that's what's important to them in the game. Sure, there is a campaign going on, I guess, but that's either for the other players, or background noise for THEY'RE story.

    In conclusion, I think the idea is fantastic, and I will likely attempt to implement it in my own campaigns going forward. I just I felt like it would have a noticeable effect.

    Putting forth the Distinction, "Bronze Age Morality" is only effective is your players understand what the Bronze Age is. T_T

    Ah, regarding your Star Wars reference - 'Edge of the Empire' would be an incorrect Distinction as I am understanding FFG's Star Wars game. As would 'Rogues and Scroundrels'.

    I am not trying to running a Traveller game in the Star Wars universe. I am trying to run a Star Wars game in the Star Wars universe using Traveller's rules.


    1. I am reminded of a certain lightning-chested gamer who may or may not have played a mime once in a game of Cyberpunk 2020...

      The notion of campaign distinctions I think make sense when you have a genre that has a wide spectrum of options, such as the superhero genre. Is it a four-color Silver Age game, or a giant-shoulder-pad-wearing Iron Age game?

      What it can only do for your obstreperous players is warn them that you're not hip to their joke. And that's a whole different issue, and indicates someone who might not get the meaning of term "collaborative." I just read a book about GMing that talked about how to create release valves for the latent sociopathic tendencies of your players, but that's another post.